Thursday, November 26, 2009
Oh hey! Today is Thanksgiving in these United States! I hope most of you have enjoyed your turkey and stuffing and gravy and naptime. To celebrate this holiday of thanks I will go ahead and write about a band that I have written about many times before and has nothing to do with Thanksgiving: R.E.M.
R.E.M. are one of my favorite bands ever. I have made this pretty obvious in the past, but it is worth repeating. They are a band that cuts me deep, you see. So when I heard they were putting out a double-disc live album, one that was getting more-than-decent reviews, I figured it was worth a shot. And not only was I not disappointed - I was enthralled. I mean, I expected quality, but I did not expect this much quality. For a huge R.E.M. fan like myself, it is a special treat.
Perhaps some context is necessary. R.E.M., surprisingly enough, have issued only two official live albums in their entire 25+ year existence - and they've both been released only in the past couple years. The first one, R.E.M. Live, came out in '07 and focused on a few 2005 shows in support of Around the Sun, quite possibly the least exciting R.E.M. album ever released. And the tracklisting bore this out: not only was Sun the most represented album there with a whopping six tracks, but most of the other songs were the usual, predictable hits (a little "Losing My Religion" here, a little "Everybody Hurts" there) and questionable album cuts (like "So Fast So Numb," a decent but middling selection from the otherwise lovely New Adventures In Hi Fi, and "I Took Your Name" from the always-bleghh Monster). As for their classic I.R.S. albums, "Cuyahoga" was the only out-of-nowhere choice there; otherwise, they were barely represented. The band sounded OK, but the album was nothing that was going to bring anybody back to the R.E.M. fold after almost a decade of mediocre albums. If anything, the band sounded more out of touch than ever, trotting out their biggest hits without much gusto. It was, in a word, depressing.
Fast forward to the present. We now have R.E.M. Live At The Olympia, a two-disc 39-song set recorded during their "working rehearsal" shows in July 2007. At this point, Around The Sun had been thoroughly panned and ignored, and the band were determined to write better material for their next record in the face of rapidly thinning fan support. Most of those new songs are previewed here, and would eventually see official release on 2008's Accelerate, far and away their best album in a decade; so while it's the most represented record on here, it at least deserves to be, unlike Around the Sun. And as for their older songs, well, let me put it this way: besides Accelerate, the most represented albums on here are (in descending order) Reckoning, Fables Of The Reconstruction, and Chronic Town (FOUR songs from Chronic Town - that's one song shy of the whole thing). Coming from a band whose setlists have been painfully 90's-heavy since, well, the 90's, this is pretty remarkable; I mean, maybe Reckoning isn't a huge shock, but Fables Of The Reconstruction? With FIVE songs?! And so much of Chronic Town? These are albums most R.E.M. fans assumed they had just plain forgotten about - and maybe they had, considering how cautious they are in the introductions to each older song (especially on "Kohoutek" where Peter Buck goes as far as to say to Michael Stipe, "You should probably apologize to the audience before we play this - it could be bad").
The important thing is, though, that these old hits sound great. I mean, it doesn't hurt that they're great songs to begin with - the early-mid 80's were a good time for this band - but here they sound even more energetic than ever. I can't imagine songs like "Maps and Legends" and especially "1,000,000" sounding better; they play these older hits as if they were Lifes Rich Pageant or Accelerate songs, with more muscular guitarwork and front-and-center vocals (Michael Stipe is in really good voice the whole way through - just saying). It's really something, man. And as for the less-represented albums on here, the song choices are surprisingly top-notch. What would you expect from Document: maybe "The One I Love" and "It's The End Of the World"? Try "Welcome To The Occupation" and oh-my-lord-yes "Disturbance At The Heron House." Murmur gets "Sitting Still"(!!) and "West of the Fields"; Lifes Rich Pageant gets "Cuyahoga" and "These Days"; and the wrongs of R.E.M. Live are thankfully righted with the inclusion of "New Test Leper" and "Electrolite" from New Adventures, two of the honest-to-goodness most beautiful songs in the band's catalog. There are times when I almost feel like this setlist was tailor made for me.
But there could be some complaints. If you are more of a fan of R.E.M.'s more commercially successful late 80's-early 90's work, this record will sadden you deeply. There's nothing from Green or Out Of Time here, and only one song each from Automatic For The People and Monster. Speaking as a diehard Automatic fan, this is a little upsetting, since its one song here - "Drive" - was also on R.E.M. Live (still sounds great though, and at least it's not the horrible "rock" version they used to play on the Monster tour). But it's a testament to the quality of this live release that I honestly don't even notice they're missing most of the time. Those old hits are just so overwhelmingly well played that it just doesn't matter. And hey - "Circus Envy," from Monster, sounds a lot better here than it has any right to.
As for the newer songs, well. Accelerate's songs are still wonderful, even in their early incarnations (and I am reminded that "Living Well Is The Best Revenge," which kicks off the first disc, might be the best song they've recorded in the past decade). There's also a couple of unreleased tracks intended for Accelerate that didn't quite make the cut: the so-so rocker "Staring Down The Barrel Of The Middle Distance" and the kinda-boring "On The Fly" which finds the band still grappling with the dull-as-nails Around The Sun sound. And speaking of that album, "The Worst Joke Ever" is on here, and isn't much more exciting than the album version. "I've Been High" from Reveal fares a little better - definitely a pretty song, but not a remarkable one. These are the only songs taken from their last few albums, however, and they stick out like a sore thumb (they are literally the SLOWEST SONGS EVER WRITTEN). It just goes to show how eager they were back in the post-Sun fallout to reconnect with the sound that made them great. Listening to this show all the way though, it is easy to see why Accelerate turned out so damn good.
Oh sure, you could trifle a bit with the song choices (as I just did). You could even think to yourself, "hey, maybe these live songs sound a little TOO good to not have been meticulously overdubbed," but then you would just be a nagging nelly, wouldn't you? Honestly, if you are an R.E.M. fan of any stripe, this is essential listening - ESPECIALLY if you fell off the wagon after Bill Berry left and haven't even bothered giving Accelerate a chance. This one, unlike the last live album, will convince you. This release reminds me happily of when I saw these guys live last year, just being shocked at how re-energized, charismatic, and entertaining they were. And hey, they brought out "Ignoreland" and "Find The River" for that show, so I'll excuse their exclusion of Automatic tracks on here for now. Consider us even, band I love so dearly!!
I'll end this with a couple videos for you to see: one from one of the Dublin rehearsals, with them playing "Romance," a B-side they hadn't played in about twenty years. (Stipe is reading from a lyric sheet, which I'm sure he had to do for most of these old songs.):
Also as a bonus, and old live version of one of my favorite Out of Time tracks, "Half A World Away" (which, in a perfect world, would be on this thing):